OPINION: How the Export-Import Bank supports clean energy

Steve Wilburn  

“We adapt, we improvise, we overcome.” As a decorated, combat-wounded, disabled veteran from the Vietnam War, this motto has served me well in life. I just wish it wasn’t relevant to the small business I run, because of the politics in Washington surrounding the U.S. Export-Import Bank (EXIM).

More than 15 years ago, I launched a business here in California called FirmGreen, which identifies, develops, and commercializes new and emerging energy and water technologies. After years of working in the field, I acquired several patents for capturing methane from landfills to convert into a clean biogas. Using these and other patents, FirmGreen launched pilot plants in Burlington, New Jersey, and Columbus, Ohio. The projects earned us awards from the U.S. Department of Energy and the Solid Waste Association of North America.

These American success stories were made possible with the EXIM Bank, which provides the overseas clients of small businesses like mine with financing in emerging markets where commercial banks can’t or won’t offer loans. This financing allows us to create jobs here at home through increased exports. EXIM loans to creditworthy overseas clients have helped exporters create 1.7 million American jobs.

A biogas upgrading project in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is one of our most successful projects, with EXIM facilitating the sale. The bank provided us with $49 million in credit support, the project was completed in 2013, and we were presented the Renewable Energy Exporter of the Year Award as a result.

But without EXIM, these types of deals—and the associated jobs—disappear. FirmGreen had 35 employees in its early years. When the bank lost its authorization and quorum, we lost a $360 million project in the Philippines that had received final approval by the DOE of the Philippines, forcing us to layoff 24 hard-working employees after more than 2.5 years of waiting for the bank to have a quorum of directors approve our client’s loan. The project award from the DOE of the Philippines was subject to financing from an Export Credit Agency (ECA), like EXIM. We could have turned to ECAs in other countries, but as a veteran and a patriot, I didn’t want to take my business to China or other foreign countries.

These lost opportunities for FirmGreen had a negative trickle-down effect on other U.S. companies. Because our products are 100 percent American-made, we rely on 14 vendors across Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin to supply us with components for the biogas treatment system. In fact, 60 percent of our vendors rely on EXIM export credit insurance and other financing to ship parts and consumables. When we lose a bid, our vendors and suppliers also lose.

Unfortunately, my story is more the rule than exception. Many contracts require financing from an ECA for even the chance to bid, let alone win. Without EXIM, many U.S. businesses don’t even have a shot of beating international competitors.

This is why America needs a consistent policy that supports EXIM. I’m an advocate for a long-term reauthorization of the bank, because projects like ours take 2-3 years to develop before reaching the financing stage. If we dot all of our “Is” and cross our “Ts,” EXIM should be there at the end of the process for us and our clients overseas.

Fortunately, several Members of Congress are working to address this self-inflicted crisis. U.S. Senators Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) and Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have introduced a bipartisan bill to reauthorize EXIM for 10 years, providing the long-term certainty America’s entrepreneurs deserve. The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote on a similar proposal soon. Congress needs to move this long-term reauthorization before the end of the year, so U.S. exporters can focus on increasing sales and job creation, while improving America’s competitiveness in world trade.

My company joined the Coalition for U.S. Jobs to help advance this proposal. With nearly 40 small and large companies that partner with EXIM, we’re banding together to share stories of EXIM’s benefits to our community.

This should be a no-brainer. With EXIM, all Americans win. We spread the sale of U.S. goods into international markets, we support millions of jobs here in the States, and we make the taxpayers billions of dollars through interest fees on the financing. It’s time for Congress to enact a long-term authorization of EXIM, so America can remain competitive in these increasingly challenging times.

– Steve Wilburn is the chairman and CEO of FirmGreen, Inc., based in Newport Beach, CA.

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